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Expert Opinion: In tough times, couples need to stick together

Ben and Emily* have been living the all-American good life. Married 15 years, they've traveled, pursued their careers with success and have two young children. They can boast all the pillars of good physical, mental and relationship health: exercise, church attendance, supportive family and friends.

But all is not well.

They have accumulated considerable college debts. Ben has seen many colleagues laid off and worries he will be next. The stresses of part-time work and two small children are wearing on Emily.

The looming debt and job insecurity lead to quarrels. Instead of discussing their worries openly together, they are irritable, overly sensitive, and hear criticism in every drop of discontent.

Ben resents Emily's schedule, believing she is lazy. Emily is angry about what she sees as his self-absorption and his sense that he is the only contributor to the family.

If she just says "I don't feel like cooking tonight," he's liable to accuse her of being financially irresponsible, as if not cooking equals dining in a restaurant. What about popping open a can of chicken noodle soup and toasting cheese sandwiches?

But all Ben can hear his wife saying is that he can't provide the lifestyle they used to enjoy. Emily in turn feels under attack and withdraws further.

So many couples these days are under the kind of economic stress Ben and Emily face. They must choose, day to day, whether they will draw closer or fall apart.

It is how they respond to that stress — not the stress itself — that will determine their future.

* "Ben and Emily'' are a composite of several couples Puterbaugh has counseled.

Techniques couples can use every day

Here are some recommendations I offered to Ben and Emily. These tips emphasize getting through financial hard times, but they also can help couples under strain because of military deployments, illnesses and major transitions such as new babies, empty nests or retirement.

Face reality. Sticking your head in the sand only makes things worse. Come up with a plan; negotiate; and stick to the plan. Every month (or more often if necessary) sit down, discuss, assess and adapt.

Manage your emotions. The way you think and talk about the situation influences your emotions. There's a tremendous difference between "Things are tough, but we've been through tough times together before and we can do it again" and "How can we get through? There doesn't seem to be a way out."

Don't try to manage your partner's emotions. Listen; don't try to fix. If your partner says he doesn't like his job, squash the urge to say: "You can't quit! We're depending on you! What are you thinking?" Instead, try something like this: "It sounds like a horrible day. I'm sorry the situation is so frustrating." Attempting to stomp out uncomfortable feelings only makes things worse.

Minimize your exposure to negativity. Stay informed about your own work and financial situation, but avoid people who talk obsessively about the recession.

Turn to one another. Don't think you're protecting your partner by being stoic. When Ben seems "self-absorbed" to Emily, he's actually trying to hide his fears from her. Turning to people outside the marriage for comfort and advice can have a snowball effect. Suddenly more and more topics begin to feel off-limits.

Pay attention to your health and well-being. Regular exercise, adequate rest, quiet relaxation, prayer, meditation, nutrition and nurturing spiritual practices contribute to personal resilience and well-being. Become experts at planning free date nights, such as a candlelight dinner at home after the kids are in bed or a picnic on the beach. Developing these habits as a team will strengthen each of you — and your partnership.

Dolores "Lori'' Puterbaugh is a licensed mental health counselor and marriage and family therapist in Largo. She can be reached at or (727) 559-0863.

Expert Opinion: In tough times, couples need to stick together 04/24/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 24, 2009 4:30am]
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